Thursday, March 31, 2016

Part II: Approaches to the Fictional Biography of Artemisia (no. 37)

 by Larry Witham


SUSAN VREELAND HAS earned a reputation as perhaps the leading romance writer of historical art fiction, ranging in her characters across the northern Renaissance, the Italian baroque period, the French Impressionists, and more.
            She came on the scene in 1999 with the sleeper bestseller The Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), published by a small Denver press. It tells a kind of romantic and tragic story surrounding the Dutch artist Vermeer and one of his paintings.
            With her publishing platform secure, Vreeland moved on to a second art history novel, telling the story of the Italian baroque-period painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), the first woman to be accepted into the Florence Academy.
            The novel is titled The Passion of Artemisia, (2002), and this time it came out with a major New York publishing house. It was a curtain raiser for other of Vreeland’s upmarket art historical novels to come, and in this benchmark work, Artemisia’s “passion” is a very appropriate term.
            Of all the Artemisia novels (see Part I), Vreeland’s is by far the best known and the most commercially successful. In Passion of Artemisia, Vreeland’s graceful prose pulls out all the stops when it comes to a woman’s longings, feelings, resolves and resentments. Of course, Artemisia—as all of her biographers have detailed—had some very legitimate things to complain about, despite her otherwise successful and interesting life (at least compared to virtually all other women in the seventeenth century).
            The first is her rape at age eighteen, made famous now by a rape trial that was documented in historical records. Vreeland opens her story here. She presents the trial in its raw gynecologic detail. Not only are the church officials the epitome of evil, but we also find Artemisia passionately loathing her father, a betrayer. He sued the rapist over a stolen painting, and this had dragged Artemisia into a humiliating public spectacle.
            The passion shows up in a few other strong themes. A central one, perhaps second only to the rape, is Artemisia’s artistic specialty—painting a violent biblical scene in which a wronged woman cuts off the head of the man. This is the story of Judith, and in several such head-cutting oil paintings, Artemisia both innovates in composition and, as this novel suggests, gets vicarious revenge against such wanton men.
            Vreeland’s novel also focuses on Artemisia's additional quality as a painter: she does nude females. To paint biblical and mythological stories that required naked women, Artemisia could use a female model, whereas (officially, at least), male guild artists and students could use only male nudes, otherwise it was said to be a scandal.
            In painting women, Artemisia made some obvious changes in the expressions on their faces. For narrative effect, Vreeland reads the painter’s thoughts into some of the works, suggesting how Artemisia had revealed a true female psychology in facial expressions and bodily gestures (versus the idealized, passive looks used by male painters).
            By the subject matter and the psychology, Artemisia introduces a woman’s point of view into Western art, the novel implies. If that’s not clear, Artemisia states it plainly to her father. Society can change its view on women, she tells him: “Things will change, father, they must, and art can help create the change.”
            Artemisia's passions, and the training she received from her father, would gradually put her in significant company. For a start, her husband—with whom we are treated to a few sex scenes—takes her to Florence, away from Rome, with its bad memories. In Florence, she becomes friends with the nephew of Michelangelo, gains introduction to the house of de Medici (for whom she paints), and becomes a close friend of no less than Galileo. They are both trying to drag the medieval world into the modern one, as this story goes.
            Still, the most passionate side of Artemisia stems from the sense of injustice she feels toward her father. It is also shown in her devotion to her daughter, raising her to be a painter and an independent woman. However, the daughter does not agree; she doesn’t like to paint, and would rather marry a nobleman. Indeed, Artemisia chastises her daughter for not “feeling” passion (“white hot passion”), and not feeling utter indignation over the “pain and humiliation” that her mother’s life has undergone (again, focused on the rape trial).
            In one of her rare critical moments (of herself) Artemisia admits that she is actually a lot like her father. He has sacrificed her for his art, and looking back, she has also left her husband and neglected her daughter for her art. “We have both chosen art over our daughters,” Artemisia confesses.
            In this novel, Vreeland is looking for emotional drama, a strong sense of grievance, distinctly good people and bad people—and finally, a symmetrical plot. For example, the real Artemisia had at least four children, some of them boys. In The Passion of Artemisia, Vreeland simplifies it down to one daughter, an only child, so that a mother-daughter dialogue can stitch across the novel uninterrupted.
            Also symmetrical, Artemisia ends up in London with her father (true to history) and they reconcile (an unknown in history). Art is pain. Life is like that, and older and wiser Artemisia realizes. At least her father taught her to see, to use her imagination, and to paint.
            The number of Artemisia novels—three so far—pales next to the hundreds of graduate student papers done on the most notable female artist of Renaissance Italy. As noted in Part I, literary critic Susan Sontag spoke of the first Artemisia novel (Artemisia, 1947, by Anna Banti), as solace for aggrieved women, both readers and Banti herself. As the author, Banti could, by “assuming the full burden of sympathy, console and fortify herself,” Sontag says. “And [console] the reader—especially the woman reader.” One virtue of all Artemisia novels, to be sure.

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